Humor & Theology at the Chemo Pump – A Review of Cancer is Funny

My review of Jason Micheli’s Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo [Fortress Press, 2016] is now up on the great Englewood Review of Books.  Full disclosure: Jason is one of the pastors I work with in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and I was on one of his recent podcasts of Crackers & Grape Juice – a real labor of love by pastors who love theology. Jason also maintains the Tamed Cynic blog.

But on to the review:

Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know.  The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny.  Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix)  This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.  Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive.  Plus, too, he’s funny.

417jI57h4TLI can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press.  Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting.  Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men).  A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.

This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.

A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer.  She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding itjason-briscoe-223974—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework.  In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated.  “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)

“The assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power…Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”

In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book.  Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines.  (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value.  When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.

The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here.  He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch.  The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.

Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body.  I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional.  But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.

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Jason Micheli

Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era.  In Karr’s The Art of  Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice.  “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.”  And this means digging down beneath the pretty.

Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book.  But he values the rawness he has experienced.  His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)

This is a searing book.  The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain.  But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto.  Not ‘ha ha’ joy.  But life for sure.  It’s a journey worth taking with him.

Keeping the Midwest Weird: My interview with Mark Athitakis continues – part 2

i-m-priscilla-165377In my last interview blog post with the writer Mark Athitakis, “Why we we’ve got to get Willa out of the cornfield”, we talked about the plural landscape of the Midwest, something he covered in his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.  Today we talk about seeing the world for what it is, the state of religious literary fiction, and “keeping the Midwest weird.”

I like how you bring out, in the chapter on bad places, how Jane Smiley and Gillian Flynn are looking at the landscape and, kind of, flipping the old bottle on its head, and saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of ugly out here.  There are some really ugly places.”

Or, it can be. Those Gillian Flynn books are fascinating to me, because I think she writes in a very gritty way about how rough those places are and how much those regions kind of took it in the teeth, especially during the great recession.  But her characters have this very strong urge to defend the Missouri Bootheel.  It’s like, “Don’t tell me what my place is.  This is where I grew up.  This is my home.  Don’t mock it.  Don’t make fun of it.  Don’t call us dumb hicks, or southerners, or hillbillies, or that sort of thing.”  She doesn’t get credit for this because I think she’s treated more as just a thriller author.  But she captures that sense of loving an unlovable place better than a lot of other writers out there.

 

Let me ask you about your religious literature section.  You talk about Marilynne Robinson, and then, at one point, you talk about how she’s kind of left alone “as the standard bearer of the religious literary novel, prompting some critics…to wonder whether it might be revived again.” (32) I guess the implication there is that it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of hope for that.

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Marilynne Robinson at the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing, Calvin College – photo by Christian Scott Heinen Bell

I was thinking more explicitly about Paul Elie, who wrote a book, I think coming on ten years ago now, about the great heyday of Catholic writers, talking about Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton.  There was kind of this period where so much of what we’re talking about in terms of social issues and issues of identity could be filtered through what Catholic writers were doing and we don’t have an explicit religious literary culture like that anymore.  In terms of Marilynne Robinson, there’s room for one, and we’ve picked her.  If you’ve got to pick one, I think she is a remarkable thinker about religion.  What struck me as funny in going through how she’s been approached critically, though, was that so much–and I’ll cop to being guilty to this as well, I wrote a review of Home for the Sun Times that kind of played into this–is that so much of what people publicly admire about Marilynne Robinson is her writing.  She is an exquisite maker of sentences, and she obviously writes with a real sensitivity about people and their struggle.  And she wrote beautifully about Iowa.  James Woods celebrated that when he re-elevated her, reviewing Gilead in 2004 in The New York Times Book Review.

But all this kind of comes at the expense of the tough stuff that’s in these books.  I mean, it’s talking about interracial relationships and how this estranged families.  It’s about church burnings.  It’s about the role that Iowa had played during the Civil War.  And prostitution.  There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in Marilynne Robinson’s novels that gets very soft-pedaled in public discussions that we have about them.  So, there’s still this reflex of trying to implant this: “Well, it’s an Iowan, she’s writing about religion, so these must be very soft, church-y books.”  But you know, they’re not really.

Lila, the last one in the trilogy, is about a young girl who is orphaned, left to live among prostitutes, left to fend for herself in the wilderness, and eventually becomes part of this church community.  But so much about that book is about skepticism of religion.  How can I trust this faith that you are telling me about, this religion that you are telling me about, when everything I’ve known in my entire life has existed to degrade me?

Then you go from that to read reviews that talk about: “Nobody writes better about Midwestern values than Marilynne Robinson.”  Wait, what?  That’s not exactly where she’s coming from.

So, of course, I come out of a different region.  And the literature that has formed me has been more Southern Gothic literature—Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and people like that.  When you talk about “keeping the Midwest weird,” do you see any connections between the kind of things that people like, maybe, Thomas Disch are doing? Is that a similar way of trying to shock us into seeing something different about the region?

One point I tried to make in that particular chapter is that the Midwest, as much as any other place, has sparked experimental writing of its own.  Obviously, the Iowa Writers Workshop is there.  You have writers like Robert Cooper, who is one of the experimentalists who wrote a lot about the Midwestern region, writers like William H. Gass, who writes in this beautifully elegant, smart metaphors, but also this very angry, infuriated tone.

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Mark Athitakis

Really what I was trying to get at there is this idea, again, that there’s not one particular specific kind of Midwestern writing, but that there was maybe a little bit more risk-taking amongst writers in the region than it’s perhaps given credit for.  And also, someone like Leon Forrest, a longtime Chicagoan, who I write about in the last chapter, was a pioneering African-American experimental writer coming out of the, roughly, second half of the 20th century. Toni Morrison, who is treated now so much as practically a statue of contemporary American fiction, was a great experimentalist earlier in her career, and she was Leon Forrest’s editor.  So, my goal there was to point out that there’s a through line of writers who, contrary to popular belief, were taking real chances and risks with language.

Rural is Plural

This article originally appeared in the great Topology magazine.

 

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We were in danger of becoming a caricature.  When a parent stood up at a local school board meeting and expressed her dismay at a word being used in two books in the school library, blogposts and news stories from New York to Singapore decried the benighted censorship emanating from our Virginia backwater county.  Because the books were Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But the word was ‘nigger.’

219 times in Huck Finn.  48 times in Mockingbird.  That’s how many times the word (along with other slurs) is reported to have been used.  And oh, the power of the word.  “What are we teaching our children?” the mother, who has a biracial child, asked the school board.  “We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means.”

Do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

The school system could have responded by following their recently adopted policy which asks that a “Request for Reconsideration of Learning Resources” form be submitted to the school and be considered through a process that would not require immediately pulling the books.  But our schools, like so many of our institutions, have so many policies and the heat of the moment is often quite hot.  So the books were pulled and in the week that followed before their reinstatement, Accomack County became an international symbol of censorship with its accompanying heaps of opprobrium.

There were upsides to the controversy.  People rallied on the courthouse lawn to protest.  When is the last time that people rallied in defense of literature?  Our local independent (and only) bookstore put Mockingbird & Finn on prominent display and sales spiked.  The owner was interviewed when TV crews came to town.  The local (and only) community theater sponsored a dramatic reading of the play based on Lee’s book.  All in all, it was a boost for the arts.

The question raised didn’t fall along simple lines, either.  How do we offer these books with their shocking words to our children?  What sort of context should we give?  Is the freedom of a library book shelf enough?  Or do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

What stuck in my craw, though, was the way my community was flattened by the media coverage.  It’s been happening all fall.  As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

So when the book controversy arose, we suddenly became another piece of evidence for the yawning divide between the enclaves of enlightenment and the continent of disgruntled whites malnourished by their steady diet of fake news.  Not that there isn’t a divide.  Lord knows, the distance from here to the Northeast Corridor seems to grow by the day.  Economic dislocation, declining educational opportunity, racial tension, opioid abuse – they all take their toll.  But we don’t get better by being exotic objects of remote observation.  Or by turning ourselves into such a thing.

Rural is plural.  That’s the thing I know from my life in the rural South.  I’ve had my run-ins with the kind of small-mindedness that lends itself to easy lampooning, but I’ve also been nurtured and challenged by big-hearted, poetic grandeur from the likes of English teachers, non-profit leaders, and country church choirs.  I grew up with and live with dreamers and everyday artists.

If we have a way forward beyond this time of crucial divide, it wofelix-serre-207685n’t be because certain regions hunkered down in their bubble and withstood the assaults coming from the other bubble.  The way forward has no red or blue hue.  It has the character of a river running right through the heart of a land on which unlikely companions seek a new day of freedom and adventure.  And on this journey we will share our best and worst selves, in language coarse and beautiful, with people who come from very different circumstances but with transcendent desires.  Someone should write a book about that.

Why Iowa isn’t Heaven

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Where else would Ray Kinsella have built his Field of Dreams except in an Iowa cornfield?  Am I right?  A baseball diamond where the ghosts of the past could come for healing and restoration – for their own and for the living?  Had to be in the heartland, where the solid goodness of America is on full, homogenized display.  “Is this heaven?” Ray’s long-dead dad asks.  “No, it’s Iowa,” Ray responds.  But we know he’s wrong, and Ray does, too, when he looks up at the farmhouse porch where his wife and daughter are playing.  “Maybe it is heaven,” he mumbles.

Yeah, Iowa’s gotta be heaven.  When the rest of the country has gone to pot, dissolving into arguments over bathrooms, borders, and Trump, always Trump, something green will still be growing in Iowa.  Something pure and enduring will always play out between the chalked lines of a Midwest ball field.  If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.

If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.

Except…maybe the Midwest is not the Midwest anymore.  Maybe the stories of diversity and change that play out on the coasts have found their way to Ames and Grinnell, too.  Maybe there are trials and even terrors on the prairie.  Maybe…gulp…Iowa’s not heaven.

Mark Athitakis is not afraid to tell you that it’s not, but he will tell you that the Midwest is vibrant and interesting all the same.  I just finished his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt [Belt Publishing, 2016].  Athitakis is a writer and book reviewer for the likes of The New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times and he writes a regular column on Midwestern books for Belt Magazine.  In this slim review of Midwestern fiction you can get a good list of books you want to read, but also some insights into how not only the lit but also the land is changing.41emhjjubll-_sx348_bo1204203200_

“The Midwest is a richer, more contrarian, more surprising place than the one we’re encouraged to carry in our heads,” Athitakis tells us on page 15.  The writers he wants to introduce us to are more willing to acknowledge this, too.  He goes beyond Marilynne Robinson, whose Iowa trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila, he feels often gets miscategorized as a tribute to gauzy, Midwestern values, ignoring the social tensions beneath the surface.  And he takes us to people like Aleksandr Hemon, a transplanted Bosnian to Chicago who “became an American less by choice than by force, by accident” — a perspective that leads him to write “about America not from the perspective of constitutional idealism, but decay and threat.  For his heroes, America isn’t the New World but the Old World’s postwar absurdity in a different costume” (21).

“The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)

Athitakis’s grandest theory is that the Midwest is no longer the backdrop for stories about how disparate people become Americans (a la Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow).  “The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)  Some novels, like Laird Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana, which talk about Midwestern landscapes, now “evoke place less through descriptions of the flatness of the territory, but by evoking a desolation that echoes it.” (48)

The New Midwest is a quick read that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.  I finished it with Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s poem ‘A Psalm at the Sunrise’ echoing in my ears.  Looking out my window at the winter field across the road, I feel that I, too, “wake to an effulgence of mirrors, and lo: I see.”  It’s not the pure light of America that I see glowing in the dawn or in the Iowa cornfield.  It’s the refracted light of multitudes.  Christ playing in ten thousand places, if you will.  Rural is plural that way.

The We of Me – Carson McCullers week continues

Don’t we long to be fully engaged?  I’ve checked in with Carson McCullers a couple of times this week on the occasion of her 100th birthday.  She’s often thought of as a prophet of loneliness, but I wonder if what she expressed in her writing was more a longing to be released from the silo of her own experience.

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In The Member of the Wedding, her 1946 book that later became a hit play and movie, (starring a young Julie Harris and a sterling Ethel Waters), McCullers goes back to adolescence to imagine her Columbus, Georgia childhood through the lens of Frankie. It begins like this:

“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”

What she longs for is to be inside of a love large enough to include h330244er.  She thinks she finds it in her brother’s engagement and somehow she will be asked to be a part of his marriage.  Her brother and his bride, she imagines, are the ‘we of me.’

The ‘we’ she shares this with are her wise African-American caretaker, Berenice, and John Henry West, a younger neighbor.  They humor her tempers and temper her passions, but Frankie still manages to be wildly imaginative and deeply heart-broken.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt the same sort of longing:

“Searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being.”

It is a strange thing to be sharing this experience of life with such a multitude and yet not find the way inside.

phone0001McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, shares an image of the young Carson that has haunted me.  At the age of 17 she travelled alone to New York City to try to make it as a writer.  She was overwhelmed and enticed by the crush of people in the city.  Not knowing how to connect, she took books down to the Macy’s department store and sat in an enclosed wooden phone booth.  There she sat reading for hours on end–tantalizing close to the people she longed to meet and yet sealed off in a compartment designed for communication.

Alright–I’ll give you that that sounds like an exquisite image of loneliness. But it also feels like an apt image for the age.  In a time of fantastic means of communication, we find connecting hard.  And as much as we distract ourselves with our myriad screens, there is a longing to be fully engaged.  We have our own tankards, but we also want to know the ‘we of me.’

When Psalm 42:1 describes the deer panting for living water, I think that’s a thirst McCullers knew.  And as the psalm also describes, it is a holy thirst.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers Week, part 2

Post 2 for Carson McCullers 100th Birthday Week.

37380Things to expect when you read Carson McCullers: late night diners, music, triangles of frustrated love, circuses, outsiders, and wanderers.  In her two best works, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding, you also find a fiery, pre-teen girl trying to make sense of the world around her.

Mick in Heart and Frankie in Member are both stand-ins for Carson, who never really outgrew the wonder and longings of that stage of her life.  But the fruit of her arrested development is work which probed the depths of her deep South community and captured the vulnerabilities of her adult characters in a way that a more jaded author would dismiss.  She tackles great national issues like race, class, economics, and rigid gender roles, but all from within the roiling of a young soul.

“This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.”  —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Besides the girls, perhaps her greatest literary creation was the character of John Singer, the mute man at the center of Heart who does not speak but who becomes the confidant of Mick and several other troubled characters.  His silence allows those around him to project whatever they would like onto him, but it also condemns him to be misunderstood.

“During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged.  The rumors about him grew bolder.  An old Negro woman told hundred of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead.  A certain pieceworker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state–and the tales he told were unique.  The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves.  And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real.  Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.”  —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

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Carson McCullers’ typewriter

Singer himself is devoted to a comically selfish man, Antonapoulos, who is unable to reciprocate his affection.

All these star-crossed dreamers wander the same streets and seek the same thing – a lasting home within love.  The failure of their searches only illuminates the treasure that they desire.  And it’s what gives McCullers work it’s transcendent beauty and warmth.  There is a heart in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

“A World Intense & Strange”: Carson McCullers Week

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Hanging out with Carson McCullers

Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of my new favorite writer — Carson McCullers.  My relationship with her began with an audio book of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and quickly followed with lapping up all of her novels.  I’ll share some thoughts through the week on her basic themes, much of them related to longing for home and the nature of love, mostly set within the frame of her Columbus, Georgia childhood home.  I set out some early thoughts in this piece for the Streetlight magazine blog.

It’s about that Church Building. It’s Got to Go.

 

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Beginning in the late 19th century, the Methodists began settling down.  What had been a movement of house groups, camp meetings, and simple preaching houses, set up shop on every Main Street and country crossroad and made themselves a presence with substantial stained-glassed buildings.  In the 1950s and 1960s we built again during that anomalous period when Methodists grew and mainstreamed into American life along with the other mainline churches.  So what to do with all these buildings?

I’m only a few poems into the new collection edited by Kevin J. Gardner titled Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches [Bloomsbury, 2016], but it has already gotten under my skin.  The unifying theme of the poems is a focus on abandoned or little-used Anglican churches.  In an opening essay he quotes John Betjeman, the late British Poet Laureate: “Those driven by fiscal motives to shutter churches ‘ forget that church as a building is a more lasting witness to our Christian faith than any bishop, vicar, churchwarden or congregation.’” (4)

Now, I’m as likely to haunt old churches as anyone.  An old church has a texture of well-worn devotion and memories of ecstatic transport.  At Pocomoke Church, here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, one of the old stiff pews has a small plaque to mark where Purnell Bailey, later a prominent United Methodist clergyman, received his call to ministry.  Why people don’t sit there every Sunday in hopes of being zapped is a mystery to me.

But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith.  They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.

“But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith.  They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.”

No, don’t prop them up for poets’ sentimental longings.  Repurpose them!  Shutter them!  Bulldoze them if it serves the kingdom!  The Son of Man had no place to lay his head and our investment in buildings as an institution is a kind of nostalgia for the Davidic kingdom and a time when we were established and respected.

9781472924353We are not curates for a culturally-relevant museum.  We are agents for the subversive kingdom which always demands new wineskins and they are in short supply.

Churches that find their budgets steadily consumed by the cost of maintaining their physical plant might ask the question of how best to be housed as we move into God’s new future.  In many churches, the upkeep of buildings falls to aging trustees who do heroic work but who are feeling more overwhelmed by the task of addressing years of deferred maintenance.  And in the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.

“In the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.”

I’m a sentimental fool with a romantic sense of history.  I love these old buildings.  It’s why I’m reading Gardner’s collection.  But I love Jesus, too, and I think he’s calling us to new digs.

A Heart in Darkness – Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

61ctwxzsuzl-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 2016

320 pages

South Carolina seemed enlightened, until you realized that, beneath the comforts and opportunities, the plan was to sterilize the black race out of existence.  North Carolina used less subterfuge, resorting to a grisly ‘Freedom Trail’ of hanging black bodies as a way of dealing with its ‘race problem.’  Tennessee was a burnt-over, cursed place and Indiana had its own terrors.

The main marvel is that Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad, works at all.  It’s a fantastical reimagining of 19th century American slavery that manages to offer both a realistic portrait of the peculiar institution and an alternative narrative in which varied states play out racial narratives in different ways and in which the metaphorical railroad that channeled persons out of slavery to the North becomes an actual iron and steam train rumbling beneath the land.  In sum, the book makes an effective argument that the only way beyond the terrors and lingering trauma of American history travels via the subterranean tunnels of imagination.

The central character in the book is Cora, who is born into slavery on a coastal Georgia plantation.  Her story and choices are framed by a grandmother who left her a pitiful plot to till and tend and a mother, Mabel, who ran away, abandoning her child.  The first third of the book hews close to history, detailing the small and great indignities, the ever-present threat of violence, and the choking claustrophobia of cotton plantations.  Cora, who is a bit of an outsider within her own community, goes through a process of consciousness-raising that leads her to eventually accept the offer of a fellow slave, Caeser, to run away.

Their journey brings them to the Georgia station of the Underground Railroad, a creation that one ‘station master’ introduces this way: “If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262).  The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.

If you want to see what this nation is all about you have to ride the rails.  Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America” (262).  The grim punchline being that all you ever see in a tunnel is darkness.

In her travels, Cora is pursued by Ridgway, a sadistic slave-catcher who is just as deformed by the system of slavery as she is.  He is haunted by Mabel, the one that got away, and determined to send Cora back to a violent end, even if it means his own death.  His ultimate plunge into darkness is a fitting glimpse of the grotesque dance white and black were doing.

Whitehead’s book is a testament to the power of imagined alternatives, but it is just as much an indictment of the imaginary histories we tell ourselves about the past and about who we are.  Cora’s job in the relative freedom of South Carolina is as a living installation in a museum where she inhabits a glassed-in triptych meant to illustrate the real black experience.  Except that Scenes from Darkest Africa is ridiculously primitive, Life on the Slave Ship is jauntily nautical with a strange wax dummy of a sailor, and Typical Day on the Plantation has luxuries, like a seat and a spinning wheel, that Cora never knew.  When she complains to the museum owner about the inaccuracies, his only concession is that the room for the exhibit was too small.

When a small child on the plantation recites the Declaration of Independence for the amusement of his owner, the fantasy of the national myth is exposed.  To Cora it “was an echo of something that existed elsewhere.  Now that she had run away and seen a bit of the country, Cora wasn’t sure the document described anything real at all.  America was a ghost in the darkness, like her” (180)

Is it possible to write a book that is very good without it being good writing?  I think so.  Whitehead’s ideas are vigorous, but his characters and dialogue aren’t.  I encountered this in his last book, Zone One, which I never finished because it left me cold, (and not just because it was about a zombie apocalypse).

We always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are.  And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery.  We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.

51nha5jnbll-_sx329_bo1204203200_Nevertheless, when you pair this with Yaa Gyasi’s great debut novel, Homegoing, which came out last year and which pulsates with life in telling a multi-generational story of Africans and African-Americans through the slavery era and beyond, we have two great windows on the lingering effects of the slave system on contemporary society.  As a white reader, I think these books say much more than that black lives and black history matter.  They are a reminder that we always inhabit stories that began before we got here and that shape who we are.  And the story I am a part of is one that has been distorted in its own way by the demonic narrative of slavery.  We need all the wrestling, dancing, and imagination we can muster to envision a light at the end of the railroad tunnel.